Parking The Bus: An Ugly Phenomenon

Brutal, yet effective

 It would be safe to say that Barcelona weren’t their usual selves on a cold Wednesday night in Milan during a scintillating and historic Champions League tie. Averaging 3 goals a game so far this season, the Spaniards shocked the footballing world when they finished the 90 minute thriller against the resilient Italian side without a single goal to their name.

While many may dismiss Barca’s failure to show up at the San Siro as a once-off, this is most certainly not the case. Time and time again the Catalans have carved their way through weak Spanish defences all too easily, and putting 3 or more goals past their opponents is almost a weekly fixture for football fans watching across the globe. Tiki-Taka is undoubtedly one of the most successful mediums of football used today, and Tito Vilanova’s side pass opposition to death with relative ease in La Liga. Their ruthless run of form in the Spanish league has seen them claim the best ever La Liga start in history, after they had claimed 55 points out of a possible 57 at one stage in the season. Have a look at their 24 results domestically so far this campaign. Astounding to say the least. 80 goals in 24 games is utterly emphatic. This is the sort of form that has earned this star-studded side the right to be crowned as one of the world’s best ever teams.

 

Barca running riot in La Liga

Barca running riot in La Liga

 

But the Champions League is a whole different ballgame, and while the Spanish League leaders seem to have faced the unpredictability of the outcomes on those fateful European nights, they still seem as if they haven’t learnt from their previous misdemeanours.

Last season, Chelsea pulled off two monumental results against the ‘La Masia’ crowd. Many criticised Chelsea’s unappeasing method of play, yet if it wins you the game, surely you must be doing something right?

There is no right or wrong way to play football, although some ways are simply more effective than others. Chelsea’s use of ‘Parking the bus’ was one of Roberto Di Matteo’s most inspiring additions to a side deprived of the same quality as their Spanish opponents, and it worked a treat.

Pep Guardiola’s mesmerising ‘Tiki-Taka’ football is widely described as the most aesthetically pleasing style of football, and it allows players suited to the unique system to realise and reach their full potential. But all good things inevitably come to an end, and Pep Guardiola’s seemingly unflappable system was found out by an unsuspecting London outfit. Chelsea unearthed Messi et al’s achilles heel, and starved the Spaniard’s of time and space in every last inch on the Camp Nou and Stamford Bridge turf.

 

This ingenious implementation by the former Chelsea manager meant that his whole team had to double up on almost every one of Barcelona’s players. The Pensioners essentially defended with 11 men for much of the game, and in doing so they frustrated Guardiola’s side so much so that the Londoners would eventually prevail, and claim their first ever Champions League trophy, an accolade which has eluded Abramovich and his disciples for the whole of his and Chelsea’s illustrious career.

Milan decided to take a leaf out of Chelsea’s book, and Massimiliano Allegri implemented an almost identical tactic of ‘Parking the bus’ when the Italians met the Spaniards.

Possession is the most prevalent component in Barcelona’s much-loved Tiki-Taka football, but what’s the point of having the ball if you can’t put it in the back of the net? You would think that after last season’s fall at the merciless hands of Chelsea, Barcelona would have learned their lesson. Yes, small, ball-monopolising players are more suited to Barca’s system, but there is a gaping flaw in the Spanish side’s system. There is no plan B. Evident against Chelsea, even more so away to Milan.

Passing doesn’t win you games

After all, passes don’t win you games, and neither does possession. They may lend a huge helping hand in some aspects, but there needs to be some sort of adaptation by the sometimes one-dimensional Catalonian outfit. Vilanova’s side play passes over-the-top and in-behind for fun most days. But when the going gets tough, they seem to lose their way, sticking to the only way they know how to play football. How often do you see Barcelona score from a cross or a header? Seldom. Sometimes a gritty goal is needed, and when Messi is in the box, he simply cannot beat the majority of centre-backs with any sort of aerial presence.

Milan’s composure in front of goal proved to be crucial in their monumental win against Barca, and they didn’t need an awful lot of possession to win the game. Just a perpetual, unfaltering work-rate along with a huge scoop of luck, and the Italians ran out the victors. Two majestic goals courtesy of former Portsmouth players Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari put the Italian giants 2-0 ahead on aggregate, leaving the Messi and co. with a massive mountain to climb.

Call it what you will. Ugly, distasteful or boring. But in the end, sometimes parking the bus is the only way to get one over the Tiki-Taka loving sides, and in these two instances, it has proven to be more than just a mere fluke, but rather a stroke of genius by Allegri and Di Matteo.

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic: A God Amongst Men

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It would not be too outlandish a statement to make if one were to say that Zlatan Ibrahimovic has already written his name in football’s history books, alongside the likes of former compatriot Lionel Messi, considered to be one of the best ever advocates of the beautiful game. He is already referred to as a living, and still active legend by many a pundit or football fan, and for all the right reasons. The big Swede has always produced for club and country, while scoring some beauties in the process. Some refer to him as a God, or even as Jesus reborn, reincarnated, because of the miracles he regularly pulls off. He has excelled at the top level for all of his professional playing career, performing aptly for some of world football’s most prestigious, trophy-laden teams such as AC Milan, Internazionale, Juventus, FC Barcelona and more recently PSG. His selfdom can sometimes overshadow his raw talent and ability, but he has a right to exhibit such an egotistical persona, as he more than backs it up with his regular flashes of sheer class. A prime example of his ego in all of its glory was when he was asked by a reporter what he bought his wife for Christmas. He coolly replied “Nothing, she already has Zlatan.” One thing is for certain though. This confidence that he possesses in himself and shows off so extravagantly helps him on the pitch, as confidence is key in a footballer, especially one aspiring to compete in Europe’s most elite competitions. Zlatan is known as a great goal-scorer, and also as a scorer of great goals. These are not usually traits that go hand-in-hand. They do however, for Zlatan. His arrogance and ability combined make him one of Europe’s most coveted talents, even if his career looks to be nearing its expiry date. If one night and one game were to sum up his character and ability as a person and a player, it would most certainly be that one eventful evening in his home nation of Sweden, in Solna.

When Zlatan Ibrahimovic took to the Friends Arena in Solna, Sweden, on 14 November 2012, he was expected to have a relatively mundane evening, even by his prodigious standards. This night was to mark England and Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard’s 100th donning of the Three Lion’s white jersey. It was also the opening of this new state-of-the-art football stadium in Sweden, which would now become the national team’s new home. All eyes were on Gerrard though, as it was an occasion of more magnitude for a legend of his caliber. It was also a match in which Hodgson chose to bleed a select few of England’s finest youth, starting Raheem Sterling, and Steven Caulker, bringing on the ever-enigmatic Wilfried Zaha in the process. Many were under the influence that England’s pedigree of Premier League and European experience would be too much of a handful for the Swedes. The shift put in by one Swede in particular on this fateful night in Solna has proved to be one of the all-time great performances by a player on the international stage. But the real focal point of this 6-goal thriller, which will be talked about for years to come,  came in the 91st minute courtesy of one 6′ 5″ mammoth of a man.

The ball is hoofed some 60 yards up the pitch aimlessly, faintly in the direction of the England goal, and Joe Hart finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place. Out in No Man’s Land, Hart has already began to paint an exuberantly vivid picture in Zlatan’s head, the Manchester City shot-stoppers’ first mistake.

Mistake number 2. Hart heads the ball with little or no conviction just over and marginally wide of the frame of an onrushing Swede. The England ‘keeper dealt with the ball abysmally, he should have at least made a proper attempt to get the ball as far away from opposition as possible, be it backwards, forwards or sideways.

Mistake number 3. Hart is still out of position, so much so that by the time the opposing striker connects with the ball, Hart is still outside his box.

The events that followed had the world of football talking non-stop, raving about arguably football’s best ever over-head kick. Some would even go as far to say as it is one of the best goals ever seen.

Ibrahimovic sees Hart pull off a rather lackadaisical header, before attempting to reposition himself and defend his net. The picture is already painted in Ibra’s mind, and experts argue that the best players in world football have this ability. The ability to paint a mental picture, and then to translate it to the pitch, all in an incredibly short amount of time. He has decided what is going to happen in the following 5 seconds, long before anyone else can even fathom the thought of such an audacious attempt. Ibra looks up to see the ball dangling in mid-air, and it drops almost in slow-motion, as the man mammoth himself decides to capitalise on Joe Hart’s misfortunes. Zlatan eyes up the ball like a predator stalking his prey. As it leaves its highest point in the air, Ibra begins his action. 30 yards away, back to goal. Surely, no chance. But wait, it is Zlatan Ibrahimovic we’re talking about here. As the Swede connects with the ball no more than 6 feet off the ground, the whole stadium watches on in anticipation. Finger-nails are being chewed clean off, hair being pulled anxiously. Ryan Shawcross is running in a 10 yard race back to defend his goal, a race he will never win. The stadium, and the world of football erupted in an almost unseen and unforgettable fashion. No one could quite believe what they’d just witnessed when the ball had crossed the line. Ibrahimovic had already scored 3 goals earlier in the match, single-handedly dismantling the English backline, yet still he wanted more.

Complacency got the better of the English, as they were ripped to shreds by PSG and Sweden’s star man. A colossal achievement for a behemothic man. It was almost fairytale-esque, that such a shift be put in and such a goal scored on the opening night of a new stadium. A riveting finish to a scintillating night in Sweden, eh?

But still the one question remains. It has been lingering on man and woman’s mind for years on end. Is Zlatan Ibrahimovic Christ reincarnated? You can decide that for yourself.